Wednesday, September 10, 2008

FFRF "Imagine a World Without Religion"

Here is a useful coincidence.

The day after I write a post discussing the difference between presenting ideas and presenting reasons for action, I get an email from American Humanist praising the Freedom from Religion Foundation for running an advertisement in the New York Times linking religion to the destruction of the World Trade Center.

The advertisement is an image of the World Trade Center when it still stood, accompanied by the text, "Imagine a world free from religion."

When the Connecticut Valley Atheists put a similar sign before the city center as a part of a Christmas display, I wrote a set of posts on the bigotry expressed by such a remark. Connecticut Valley Atheists - Imagine, Communication, Causation, and Condemnation, and Speech Proposal

Yet, here we are again, with a national organization flagrantly advertising in a major newspaper that Atheists are just as capable of being fear-mongering bigots as any religious person can be.

The Core Argument

There is a difference between saying that "religion" is responsible for the attacks on 9/11 and saying that "a religion" is responsible - just as there is a difference between saying that "a white person" is responsible for the murder of a black man and saying "white people" are responsible.

The first statement can be true – and is true – in some instances. Yet, to go from the former truth to the latter statement is an invalid inference of a type typically motivated by a bigot's desire to promote hatred without respect to either truth or reason.

A religion caused the destruction of 9/11. I would have no objection to an advertisement that pointed to that attack and said, "Imagine a world without THAT religion." But this is not what the advertisement said. It wants us to put the blame on all religion. It is as bigoted as an advertisement that put up a picture of Hitler and, instead of saying, "Imagine a world without THAT white man," it said, "Imagine a world without white men."

Or, accordingly, putting up a picture of a black person who has committed a heinous crime that everybody knows about and that generates strong emotions, and putting his image on a sign that says, "Imagine a world without blacks."

I can understand how the members of these organizations and their defenders might loathe to think of their actions in those terms. However, that does not prevent the comparison from being true. Remember, no bigot of any kind thinks of his prejudice as being bad.

Besides, how many times have religious bigots put up signs of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and others saying, in effect, "Imagine a world without atheists." For some reason, atheists, many of whom applaud the advertisement mentioned above, call those inferences bigoted and unfair.

Let's put the problem with this advertisement clearly in focus. The problem is with the inference, “A person with property X did Y; therefore, we should rid the world of all people with property X.” It is an unjustified inference from 'a religion’ to 'religion' – which is just as bigoted as an inference from ‘a black person' to 'black people' or 'an atheist' to 'atheists'.

"Because Of"

The standard response to this argument is to say that the analogy does not work. A person does not kill another person because he is white (or because he is black or because he is an atheist), but people do kill others because of their religious beliefs. That is why religion is necessarily bad, while none of these other things are not necessarily bad.

However, it does not defeat the argument. Nobody kills another person because of 'religion'. One person may kill another because of a religion, but not religion. The a religion - religion fallacy is still at play, it is still invalid, and it is still an expression of bigotry.

Ultimately, there is no sense of the phrase 'because of' that will make the statement 'A performed this horrible act because of religion' true. The statement, 'A performed this horrible act because of a religion' is sometimes true. However, what is true of a religion need not be true of religion, in the same way that what is true of a black person need not be true of all black people.

Let’s look at the most common sense of what it means to say that something happened because of something else. Imagine that a house burns down in a city. A fire inspector is sent in to discover the cause of the fire. In his report he write, "The house burned down because of . . . ." Because of what?

What the inspector is looking for is something that distinguishes the fact that this house burned down from all of the other houses that did not burn down. What, in this case, was different?

If we apply this sense of the term 'because of' to the World Trade Center, this means that we need to find out what makes the World Trade Center different from all of the other towers that did not burn on September 11th.

Religion? That's the answer?

Not hardly. Every other tower on the planet was surrounded by just as much religion as the World Trade Center. At best, coming back with the claim that the World Trade Center was brought down because of religion would be like the fire inspector telling us that the house burned down because of the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere. Even if it were true that without oxygen the house would not burn down, the house did not burn down because of the presence of oxygen. There are millions of houses in the same oxygen environment that are not burning down. And there are hundreds of skyscrapers in the presence of religion that are not collapsing.

However, we can't even get the sense that religion caused the World Trade Center to collapse that is even as strong as the claim that oxygen caused the house to burn. In the case of the house, the house cannot burn without oxygen.

Is it the case that towers cannot be attacked and brought down without religion?

I can give you an infinite number of scenarios in which somebody destroys a sky scraper that have nothing to do with religion. A disgruntled employee, a scam to collect insurance, foreigners upset about America’s alleged theft of their resources or support for a tyrannical leader that killed his parents, all of these can cause people to attack and destroy towers without the slightest input of religion.

In other words, religion is not a sufficient condition for the collapse of sky scrapers (many sky scrapers exist in the presence of religion). Nor is it a necessary condition for the collapse of sky scrapers (sky scrapers can be destroyed by people acting without religious motive).

So, again, there is no sense in which it is true that the World Trade Center collapsed because of religion.

I will belabor the point. The World Trade Center collapsed because of a religion that is true. However, there is no legitimate inference from what is true of a religion to a blanket conclusion that this statement is true of religion.

Theism, Atheism, and Terrorism

Let's look for a moment at the claim that nobody has ever killed another person in the name of areligion (or atheism).

In any sense in which this statement is true, it is also true that nobody has killed another person in the name of religion.

Clearly, we have to admit that there are atheists who have killed other people, and who have killed people because those people were religious and he thought religious people deserved to die. This happened on a grand scale during the French Revolution. It also happened in many communist revolutions. And there is nothing to prevent the lone anti-theist with a gun to decide that he is going to kill himself and as many theists as he can because theists are responsible for all of the trouble in the world and deserve to die.

But we are not willing to say that these are instances in which people killed others because of atheism. If somebody offers that interpretation, we are quick to answer that atheism does not imply communism and does not entail the destruction that these people performed. It is quite possible for a person to be an atheist and reject those actions. So, it is a mistake to say that these people committed their horrible crimes because of atheism.

Well, religion does not imply crusades or inquisitions or witch hunts either. Religion does not entail the destruction of the World Trade Center. It is quite possible for a person to be religion and reject crusades, inquisitions, and terrorist attacks. So, it is a mistake to say that these people committed their horrible crimes because of religion.

Find me a sense in which religion is responsible for the destruction if the World Trade Center in which it is also not the case that atheism is responsible for the gulags of the former Soviet Union. The rule is that you have to apply the same sense to both examples. You can’t use one standard to evaluate religion’s faults and a different standard when evaluating atheism. If you do that, then you are guilty of the moral crime of hypocrisy.

Analysis of the Advertisement

The FFRF advertisement uses a very popular and very powerful marketing ploy in which you show somebody an image that generates an emotional response, you include a reference to something else, and you engineer a change in emotions where the viewer transfers the emotional reaction of the image to the thing referenced. In short, this advertisement is engineered to generate an emotional response of fear and hatred using the World Trade Center, and presents a reference to religion, in order to cause viewers to transfer their emotional reaction to the image to the concept of 'religion'.

It is the same tactic as that used in creating a documentary where the narrator speaks of 'atheists' and 'evolution' while showing images of Hitler, Stalin, Nazi death camps, and nuclear explosions. Here, too, the effect was to use the images to generate an emotional response in the viewer and then to attach that emotional response to the concepts of 'atheism' and 'evolution'.

You cannot condemn the latter (as it certainly deserved to be condemned) without condemning the former. Doing so – applying a different standard to these two examples of hate-mongering – makes one a hypocrite. And a bigot.

Coddling Religion

I am not making this argument on the grounds that we must coddle or show and undeserved deference to religion. I have argued repeatedly that the right to freedom of religion is not a right to immunity from criticism or condemnation for one's beliefs. However, that condemnation still has to come with a measure of respect to the values of truth and reason. "Some people with quality X are guilty of N, so we should consider ridding the world of all people with quality X" is not consistent with that standard.


This blog is not about promoting atheism. This blog is about promoting virtue and demoting vice. It is true that one of the vices that I am particularly interested in demoting is anti-atheist bigotry. However, my opposition to this vice has much more to do with the fact that it is bigotry than that it is anti-atheist. A person cannot oppose bigotry by embracing it when it is useful in attacking a target that one loves to attack. One that has to oppose bigotry wherever it is found.

One of the places that it is found is in an advertisement that attempts to claim that all of religion caused the attacks of the World Trade Center when, in fact, only a subset of religious beliefs were responsible for those attacks.

I'm sending a copy of this post both to the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist. I wish never to see that image again, or any image like it, except as an example of how people used to use emotional responses to images to promote unreasoned hatred of whole groups of people. I hope only to see it as an example of the type of bigoted rhetoric that humans have outgrown.

If you agree that, while promoting atheism is fine, promoting bigotry is not (and that my arguments above are sound), then please back me up.

Freedom from Religion Foundation

Fred Edwords: American Humanist Director of Communications


Anonymous said...

Is it correct to group all Atheists as being a member of a group or association?
Is it correct to group members of a religion to that religion and that those members are part of, and that the members share special associated responsibility for the actions of members of that group?
Can we further associate belief systems which characteristics share commonality in structure in requiring the presence of a messiah, god, etc. as having shared responsibility of the members of the group in which this belief system is a member of?

Think of a high school which has many cliques, and those which do not participate in clique behavior the loner or outcasts is not responsible for the actions of other loners or outcasts, because the loners or outcasts is not a in fact a group, but members of groups will attach behavioral stigma to those which do not participate in clique behavior.

Louis said...

Very lucidly drawn. In popular discourse concerning atheism, the most prevalent error in logic is false cause, committed on both sides of the conversation. This needs to be continually discussed until such arguments are easily recognized and dismissed.

I'll be contacting the organizations listed.

anton said...

Excellent response to the FFRF advertisement. I would add that the hypocrisy "virus" infects its hosts through their earliest impressions. So, in addition to endorsing Alonzo's complaint to the FFRF, I would also ask you to take action when the "virus" shows itself in your daily life.

Here is my precise. My city has a high native population. When most white people in my apartment see a drunk native they attempt to ignite their audience into a state of fear with stories of every sin done by natives. However, when they see a drunk "white man", they pass it off with "Oh, he's harmless. He's just drunk!" I go out of my way to make them uncomfortable by reminding them of all the great natives in our community.

In a similar way, I deal with those who speak ill of the Atheist. As I turn off the lights, I exclaim, with a smile, "Okay, get your light from your God, I get mine from an Atheist!" If any of your readers use this tactic, please remember to never, never do it with anger no matter how provoked you may be. Do it with a smile! And then leave the room.

holyprepuce said...

I’m not sure I agree.

I think the white person / black person analogy to theism / atheism is inapposite. The first pair are innate, immutable characteristics; the second are consciously-held, malleable beliefs about the nature of external reality, from which often flow beliefs about how one ought to behave. Whiteness and blackness are not belief systems, and the bigot’s error is to imagine that members of the racial group he dislikes are predisposed to a belief system in which behavior he dislikes is permissible. Belief systems (religious or atheistic) on the other hand, can and often do command or justify violence.

You are correct to point out the error in assuming that all Christians, or all Muslims, or all atheists will behave violently just because those belief systems can justify violence and some members of those groups have acted violently. But I don’t think it is wrong, when a person carries out violence explicitly in furtherance of his stated belief system, to say that “X killed people because he is a Y.” For example: if Fred, who is white and is also a white supremacist, makes a video about how he is going to go and kill non-whites because he think’s they’re inferior, and then goes and does it, I think it’s fair to say “Fred killed those people because he was a white supremacist” – even though it would be incorrect to say that he killed them because he is white. And I don’t think that statement implies that all white supremacists are killers –experience can teach us that most of them make a lot of noise and maybe march in parades, but relatively few actually kill someone.

To take the white supremacy example a step further, consider the following: (1) most of us believe that white supremacists are factually mistaken in their beliefs about non-white inferiority; (2) rationally-oriented people tend to put a positive value on truth, and zero or negative value on falsehood; (3) most of us believe that murder has a negative value; (4) people can be persuaded to change their belief systems. From these premises, we can conclude that even though most white supremacists are non-violent, the fact that their beliefs lead some people to violence for the sake of a factually incorrect worldview suggests that we should try to persuade white supremacists to change their beliefs.

Indeed, we might choose to put up posters of Fred’s victims with the caption “imagine a world without white supremacy.” Maybe some white supremacists would say to themselves, “you know, I just accept this white supremacy stuff because it’s what my parents taught me, but look at where it can lead to—maybe I should question whether it’s really true that non-whites are inferior before I continue subscribing to the same ideas that led Fred to commit murder.” And maybe some other people who don’t speak up when their white supremacist neighbors talk about non-white inferiority will start speaking up, because they can see that it isn’t just a harmless mistake.

You can obviously see where I’m going with this. No, I’m not comparing white supremacy with Islam, Christianity, or any particular religion—clearly most religions have a lot of positive ideas about charity, ethics, etc. that white supremacy lacks. But my point is that as atheists, definitionally we believe that Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. are factually mistaken in their beliefs about the external world, just as white supremacists are factually mistaken in their beliefs about non-whites. FFRF is a “positive atheist” organization—its members generally believe not only that there are no gods, but also that the world would be a better place if others stopped believing in gods. So I think that the core message of the NY Times ad—that the 9/11 attacks would not have happened in the absence of religious belief—is a perfectly legitimate one for FFRF to make in furtherance of its mission.

anton said...


"Whiteness and blackness are not belief systems."

You have got to be kidding! We are not talking about what belief systems should be, but how they are! Or, are you not acquainted with the KKK and other infamous organizations?

holyprepuce said...


I think if you read my comment you'll see that I distinguish between whiteness (a racial charactaristic) and white supremacy (a belief system). KKK members would fall into both groups, but their whiteness does not in and of itself equate to a belief in white supremacy.

My point was to distiguish the incorrect statement "Fred killed those people because he is white" from the correct statement "Fred killed those people because he is a white supremacist."

The larger point was to suggest a flaw in the Atheist Ethicist's criticism of FFRF's ad -- he draws what I believe to be a false equivalence between the statements "[racial charactaristic] caused [bad outcome]" and "[belief system] caused [bad outcome]".

anton said...


Ask a member of the KKK if he would make the same distinction! Ask Christians if they are delusional! You may come to different conclusions then they do. It is a matter of communicating properly, not "observing". Your distinction may work in some school classes, but it doesn't hold much credibility down on the street. The FFRF ad was an example of sloppy use of language and irresponsible.

Some academics may have their polite way to put things but once in a while it has to take some side trips into the back alley and ask the guy carrying the gun questions like, "why are you doing this?" If he answers that he thinks every person who isn't white should be killed, then it is correct to say that he killed the people because he is white! In the last century it was condoned in some areas of the world to murder Atheists. If you were to ask the murderers who they were I am certain they wouldn't come up with "religious extremist" in their definition. Unfortunately, you might!

Alonzo Fyfe said...


So I think that the core message of the NY Times ad—that the 9/11 attacks would not have happened in the absence of religious belief—is a perfectly legitimate one for FFRF to make in furtherance of its mission.

It is true that, in the absence of religion, the religion that resulted in the destruction of the world trade centers would not have existed and 9/11 would not have happened.

It is also true that in the absense of white people, Hitler would not have existed and the Holocaust would not have happened.

But you still cannot get from here to; therefore, we should rid the world of all religion", any more than you can get from here to, "Therefore, we should rid the world of all white people."

The fact that "white people" is not a belief system is not relevant.

The problem is with the inference from the specific, "T is true of X(n)" to the general "We should rid the world of all X."

It doesn't matter whether we are talking about belief systems, or white people, or automobiles, or anything. The inference from the specific to the general is invalid.

And you can't make it valid by wishing that you had an argument that condemns all religion.

There are a lot of religions that are perfectly compatible with the World Trade Center NOT being destroyed, so you can't make the argument that preventing the destruction of the World Trade Center requires the elimination of ALL religion.

Eneasz said...

Indeed, we might choose to put up posters of Fred’s victims with the caption “imagine a world without white supremacy.”

I was surprised to see this in your comment. I was about to bring up the exact same point, and the fact that you brought it up for me implies that you're confusing things.

"Imagine a world without white supremacy" is a legitimate message. It would be the equivilant of "Imagine a world without extremist militant muslims"

But that's not the message the FFRF wanted to promote. Everyone already agrees that extremist militant muslims are a bad thing.

"Imagine a world without religion" is the equivilant of "Imagine a world without white people."

That's why the first pair of ads are acceptable, but the second pair are not.

EverydayAtheism said...

I completely agree with the post. I happened to see that on the FFRF home page after reading the post at Atheist Revolution about 30 minute activism.

It's that kind of atheist activity that keeps me in the closet to my extended family. It would consume too much energy trying to explain that I did not agree with it, and then have them rant about most atheists being intolerant and how I wasn't really one of them.

Right now we have a very congenial relationship with them, and my wife and I just avoid discussing religion or politics with them. It works for us.

holyprepuce said...


I disagree that "Imagine a world without religion" is the equivilant of "Imagine a world without white people." A world without religion could (at least theoretically) be achieved by persuasion; a world without white people could be achieved only by genocide.

In general, I don't think it is wrong to say "it would be a better world if no one believed X" -- so long as you are willing to acheive that result by persuasion and not violence or brainwashing.

FFRF's mission is one of persuasion -- it would like to convince people to stop believing in gods, and it would like to convince non-believers to become politically engaged in protecting our society from the dangers of creeping theocracy. Is it illegitimate for FFRF to connect the dots between belief in gods generally and a particular bad act that was motivated by particular people's belief in a particular god? Sure it's an overgeneralization, but illustration by example always is.

And there is the legitimate question (raised of late most notably by Christopher Hitchens) of whether moderate religious belief by the majority is a precondition to extreme religious belief by a minority. If Hitchens' thesis is correct (and I'm not saying that it is correct, just that it's non-frivolous and therefore a legitimate subject of a persuasive argument), FFRF's statement is not even an overgeneralization.

In any event, AE's thesis is essentially a baby-with-the-bathwater argument against overgeneralization. But such arguments presuppose that there is some value to the baby. And I return to my ealier point: isn't the whole point of being an atheist that you believe religious people are making a factual error? So the question becomes whether AE thinks that religious belief is--while factually incorrect--still inherantly valuable? Otherwise, why does it matter if FFRF wants to persuade believers that they should dispense with the "baby" of their non-violent religious beliefs?

If we start with the premise that we should a priori assign zero or negative value to false ideas, are there enough positive attributes to religion to make it worth preserving even if false? I'm guessing that FFRF's answer would be that all of the positive effects of religion (ethics, introspection, community, etc.) can be achieved through other means. Does AE hold a different view? Otherwise why does it matter if FFRF's solution to preventing future 9/11s is to persuade everyone, not just militant islamists, to stop believing in gods?

anton said...


Don't you think that if we were all English teachers, we could mark the disputed headline with a "C" and get on with it?

Instead we have all kinds of debate taking place about a sloppy headline. In fact, I would venture that the authors of the headline spent a heck of a lot less time considering the implications of their "masterpiece" than a lot of "objectors" have debating the merits of one headline vs another.

"Poor taste" is "poor taste" irrespective of which side of the fence it occurs. We run the risk of being like the guys on the other side of the fence who mount the "barricades" every time one of their member's efforts is criticized. Come on guys, it was a lousy headline. PERIOD!!!!

Eneasz said...

holyprudence - Obviously I agree the world would be better without religious belief. But there is a difference between persuasion via facts and debate, and "pursuasion" via bigotry and hate-mongering. I don't like the latter type being used against me, and for the same reason I don't think we should use it against others.

Also, it is probably unlikely that religion will ever be fully eliminated. As Neil deGras Tyson has famously stated (numerous times), the members of the National Academy of Sciences, the most elite of our country's intellectuals, still show a 7% belief rate. Why do those 7% of people still believe in a god? It is entirely possible that belief is partially biological, and no amount of persuasion will be able to remove it from society entirely. So we better learn how to get along with believers without making them a hated minority.

Anonymous said...

This is a good essay; the only problem is this sentence:

"The World Trade Center collapsed because of a religion that is true."

This implies that fundamentalist Islam is true! So either rephrase or delete the sentence.

Anonymous said...

alright dude you know i really dont have a problem with people believing in what they wanna believe in. But honestly a world without religion would be so much better. And actually two religions were involved with this. Because The U.S.A. is looked at as a Christian nation which is bullshit because it really should jsut be looked at as a nation. And since Christianity, along with countless other religions have been the cause for the death, slaughter, torture, etc of millions, possibly billions of people over the course of history. So yes, religion is in my opinion possibly one of the worst things to ever happen to this world. Especially because now people need a reason for everything. "Whats the point of being good without a god?" Um well the point is if you say that you should probably be beat upside the head for being a fucking moron.
Good day to you sir.

Anonymous said...

Well, all I can say is that you can't pick your skin color, but you can pick your religion and your beliefs.

Kristopher said...

if we are trying to show a difference between thiests and athiests with athiesm being the better of the two options this is something we need more of

i constantly hear athiests say that the religious people who say and do nothing to condomen extremism within their religions are enablers of the extremists.

likewise we must make sure that when athiests do something wrong, that we, as fellow athiests, are first and foremost to condemn their actions.